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Tommie-Waheed Evans: Bridging Philadanco And Classical Music.

February 28, 2014

PHILADANCORK12Text by Morgan James. Images by Rick Kauffman.

When Tommie-Waheed Evans walked up the steps to his Philadanco audition more than 12 years ago, company founder Joan Myers Brown was on top of the staircase.

“Are you the one we’ve been waiting on?” he recalled her asking.

“Yeah!” he replied.

“All right, go in there,” she followed.

“It was at that moment I knew this was where I belonged,” Evans said last week.

Joan Myers Brown founded the Philadelphia Dance Company – known as Philadanco – 44 years ago. Her intent was to create an instructional sanctuary for talented African-American dancers who were then not welcome in the established schools and companies, a place where young dancers of color felt as though they belonged.

She has achieved just that.

Still, however, there remains a latent inequity in the field.

“The imbalance is still present,” Brown stated. “It’s important that with that imbalance that we support each other. I try to make opportunities for choreographers. A lot of young choreographers. Especially with the International Association of Blacks in Dance that I started. I think that we are obligated to the next generation.”

Brown founded Philadanco in 1970 undoubtedly for the same motivations that led Alvin Ailey to found the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City more than a decade prior – to showcase to the world modern dance movement as expressed by African Americans. But more importantly, the idea was to provide an outlet for their talent.

Up-and-coming choreographer Tommie-Waheed Evans has matriculated through both of these prestigious companies.

Tonight and tomorrow, Philadanco will present Francis Poulenc’s Aubade in conjunction with The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.

The piece is choreographed by Evans, who was initially shocked by the opportunity.

“The fact that they asked this young black man from South Central Los Angeles – a member of Philadanco, someone with this aggressive and athletic movement – has been a challenge,” Evans stated. “And that’s been the beauty of it.”

PHILADANCORK10He had never heard a song from the composition before getting the gig.

“I think they wanted me to bring my different style, to kind of jump against it,” Evans said. “I’m up for the challenge. But it’s definitely something I’ve had to dig deep and work on.”

During the rehearsal at Philadanco’s West Philadelphia studio, five female dancers fluttered lyrically and purposefully to the orchestral concerto and as Evans sternly observed. It was evident that two styles of dance were melding seamlessly. It was a captivating presentation to behold.

“Philadanco is a highly technical company,” said Evans. “Since starting dance, I never really related that much to solely the movement of dance. I always related to the positions. I’m very high on technique.”

Still, when asked what differentiated Philadanco’s style of dance from others, he responded with a term culturally familiar to African-Americans.

Pocket,” he stated knowingly. “When it comes to rhythm, a choreographer I worked for used to always say, ‘You need to get in the pocket.’ And I feel like that’s what we as African-Americans naturally do.”

It’s noticeable in music that has originated from African-Americans and even more so in their expression of dance. That intangible groove.

“Being in the pocket is playing with the rhythm,” he explained. “Showing the many facets of the rhythm, the up and down beat of the rhythm, not necessarily adhering to the mechanics of the rhythm but always moving within the rhythm. Think of a classic two-step. We do one and two, and drop it down, then three.”

He rose up to demonstrate and mouth the counts.

“That’s pocket,” he said with a laugh.

Finding the nucleus of the rhythm and moving to it – and elaborating on it. It’s a cultural phenomena observed often in non-Western movement, a popular culture example being The Dougie, which grew out of Houston.

Evans attended a performing arts high school in Los Angeles where he initially specialized in vocal training before gravitating toward dance.

“Coming from my background,” he said, “I connect with music. But it took me a while to connect with this particular piece. I had never choreographed to classical other than once before and that was Bach’s Toccata, which is three minutes.”

Aubade is 20 minutes of uninterrupted orchestral music,” he said with a laugh.  “Okay?”

Now a choreographer, Evans recognizes that he must meditate on the musicality of a given piece even more intently than he had previously as a dancer, when he was free and in the moment.

“If you put this music [Poulenc’s Aubade] on and asked me as a dancer how would I want to move?” he pondered. “I would want to move like a classical ballerina. Pointe shoes.”

Nonetheless, Evans is true to his movement and his dancers’ movements.

“But I can’t choreograph to pointe shoes,” he continued. “For one, this is Philadanco. We don’t wear pointe shoes. It would look rather comical, a bit inauthentic.”

He recalled the inception of the partnership with the Philadelphia Orchestra, meeting with conductor Stéphane Denève and Philadelphia Orchestra artistic planning vice president Jeremy Rothman.

“J.B. had been hounding me,” he mused, referring to Joan Myers Brown. “And I remember being at the meeting and them saying, ‘We’ve watched your stuff and we want you with the orchestra.’”

It was Brown who insisted that Evans meet with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“I could have brought in any choreographer,” she offered. “But I’m interested in his work.”

It was the firm appreciation of his talent that reassured Evans that opportunities were not given. They were earned.

“I am so grateful to have been given the opportunities that I’ve been given,” he said.

See details and get tickets to this weekend’s performances here.

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